An unloader brace is a type of knee brace that helps take some of the stress off of the painful part of the knee joint. These braces are most commonly used for patients with knee osteoarthritis in one compartment of the knee. Doctors refer to three compartments of the knee: lateral, medial and patellofemoral. These are the places where bones connect with each other in the joint on the outer side, inner side, and kneecap area, respectively. Unloader braces work by "unloading" stress from the affected medial or lateral compartment to the healthy compartment on the opposite side of the knee joint; the brace uses a three-point pressure system that forces the knee joint to bend slightly to the unaffected side.
People who have osteoarthritis of the knee in one compartment often suffer severe pain and have problems walking. This may be very obvious to other people as well since the knee will wobble with each step as the affected compartment gives way. Elastic sleeve-type braces often provide insufficient support for these patients and do not significantly relieve knee pain. Wearing an unloader brace can provide significant knee pain relief and mobility improvement, even in patients who are active in recreational sports and have high expectations for mobility.
An unloader brace can help delay the need for surgery or help provide relief for patients who are older than recommended or otherwise unsuitable for surgery. They can also be very helpful for patients who are waiting for surgery since the waiting period can be rather lengthy. Importantly, use of an unloader brace may reduce the need for pain relieving and anti-inflammatory medication. This is very helpful to many patients who have trouble with the side effects of these medications or for patients who are simply uncomfortable with taking a lot of medication.
An unloader brace is not the correct type of brace for all knee pain. They are more bulky than many other knee brace types and also more expensive. They may not be suitable for patients who are obese because of difficulty in fitting the brace; people who have severe gait problems in which their knees knock together also aren't good candidates because the brace may chafe the unaffected knee. There are also different types of unloader brace, so patients will need to consult with a doctor to obtain the correct one. Unloader braces are usually used as part of an overall doctor-supervised management plan for osteoarthritis of the knee rather than by themselves.